Anchorage Daily News: “Woman helps tell a story of Lao people”

Posted: Nov 10, 2007


Woman helps tell a story of Lao people

‘Refugee Nation’ explores a generational disconnect

By DEBRA McKINNEY
dmckinney@adn.com

BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News — Leilani Chan plays a gangbanger and Ova Saopeng is a fighter in the secret war in Laos in the Vietnam War era as they rehearse "Refugee Nation" at the Out North Theater Nov. 8, 2007. The play, based on stories of Laotian refugees and their descendants, runs through Monday.

Xayasana Lounmala, 23, could barely make it through “Refugee Nation,” a performance at Out North Theater that delves deep into the Lao American experience. He didn’t know what to expect, but it sure wasn’t sitting there in tears.

“It was just hitting me in the face,” he said after the show. “It was like I was stepping out of my body and looking at this motion picture of my life. All those stories are a part of me; they’re part of who I am.”

“Refugee Nation” is written by the Los Angeles-area husband and wife team, Leilani Chan and Ova Saopeng. Their performance piece is based on oral histories collected from Lao refugees who lived through the U.S.-waged secret war in Laos during the Vietnam War, and those of their Americanized children who did not. The stories they tell illuminate the disconnect between the two, how one generation wants to know, the other to forget.

“Refugee Nation” takes on a heaping plate-load of issues, from the domestic violence and the post-traumatic stress that can fuel it to the annoying fact there are no Lao restaurants in this town. And even if there were, they’d probably serve Thai food.

Identity crisis is right up there. And that’s part of what spoke to Lounmala.

Like Saopeng, Lounmala is a member of what’s called the 1.5 generation, the one in between. He’s a Lao man born in a refugee camp in Thailand who grew up in America — in Kodiak, actually. He’s the bridge between the displaced generation still struggling to adapt, and the Americanized, second generation that knows no other home.

He’s fluent in both languages, as well as Thai. He’s Lao, but he’s American. An American Lao. But explaining all that gets so complicated, sometimes he just tells people he’s Thai.

“If you were born in Thailand, then you’re Thai-Isan,” he said. “Sometimes it’s just easier to say Thai.”

As Saopeng tells it, Lao people don’t have the kind of distinct identity many other Asian communities do. In most any large city, there’s a Chinatown, a Thai district, a Korean neighborhood. There’s no Lao Town, he says. No neighborhood or district.

Lao people, he says, are constantly mistaken for everything from Vietnamese to Filipino to Hispanic. If not, then certainly Hmong (same country, different ethnicity). And that’s one reason he and Chan knew it was important to include a Hmong guest artist in their production, especially coming here, where the Lao population is outnumbered by the Hmong, which is thought to be around 2,000.

“This is a Lao-centric play,” said May Lee Yang, a Hmong performer from Minnesota. “It’s really about the Lao experience. But I think that Ova and Leilani realize it’s hard to talk about Laos without talking about the Hmong.”

It’s a complicated relationship that could make for a production of its own. But Lao and Hmong refugees, those who fled the Communists, share many of the same experiences, especially the feeling of perplexity between war-survivor parents and their new-world children.

What do they have in common? How do they talk to each other?

Among the stories “Refugee Nation” takes on is what can happen when they can’t. It’s that of a mother whose son hooks up with a Los Angeles street gang and ends up in prison. In the scene she’s alone in an apartment and still so traumatized by her own experience she lives with the lights off so no one can see her.

I don’t want to remember. Too many dead body. My village burn. My house burn. My family all burn. We had to go into cave to hide from bombs. BOOM BOOM BOOM.

If there’s a common theme for both generations it’s the struggle for survival, whether it’s in a war zone, in the streets of L.A. or in the pursuit of what this country can offer.

And that’s where Toc Soneoulay’s story fits in.

Wherever “Refuge Nation” goes, it incorporates local stories. During the week, the performers worked with refugee kids at Begich Middle School, adults at the Anchorage Literacy Project, among others.

Some of the stories they gather are woven into the script. Some are told first-person. The performers asked Soneoulay, an Anchorage interpreter and Lao community liaison, to tell her own. What she decided to speak of was the strained relationship between herself and her cold and distant refugee father.

She has fond memories of him when she was a little girl. But by 10, once she had English down, she had to take on grown-up responsibilities as the family interpreter, going to the Social Security office, helping with taxes, applying for food stamps and public housing.

When she graduated from high school, her father refused to come to the ceremony. He said he’d come when she graduated from college. When she graduated from college, he refused to come then, too. He said he’d make it when she got her master’s degree.

She’s working on one in social work now. But he’s already passed away.

On his death bed, two weeks before he died, he placed his hand atop her head in his first show of affection she can remember since she was little.

“I never understood why he was never affectionate and never supportive of me.

“He said that was the only way he knew of pushing me. He didn’t know any other language to speak to me about school and accomplishment in this country.”

At first, Soneoulay wasn’t sure she wanted to do this, to sit under a spotlight in front of a room full of mostly strangers and talk about something so personal. But she decided she had to.

“It was a powerful opportunity for me,” she said. “Because my message is universal. And they gave me a voice to share it.”

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